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2.09.2007

It Just Seems to Be His Turn 

One million Elvis Costello fans can't be wrong: it's time to turn our slightly-less-than-middle-aged fancy to young Matt Cain.

The past couple weeks have brought a plethora of contract-related news items about arbitration-age players. For example: instead of signing a one-year deal or entering arbitration with Brett Myers, the Phils signed the pitcher this week to a 3-year, $25 million contract. Myers is 26 and entering his fifth full year as a major leaguer, which means the Phils bought out his final two arbitration years and one year of free agency.

Here's a list of the rest of the arbitration-eligible players this winter; the Giants had none.

If you know how arbitration works, skip the rest of this paragraph. For readers who need a refresher: players with zero, one and two years of major league service have to take what their teams offer, which is often the major-league minimum salary. Players with three, four, and five years of service are under their team's control, but if they don't like their teams' offer they can take their case for a raise to an arbitrator.

With Noah Lowry signed to a long-term deal through his arb-eligible years, the next big question mark is Matt Cain. He goes into '07 with just over a year of service time. Unless his call-up in '05 bumps him up a year -- I don't think it does -- the Giants can simply pay him the major-league minimum in 2007 and '08. I call this "The D-Train Strategy," for reasons we'll see in a moment.

From '09 through '11 Cain will be arbitration-eligible. They could negotiate with him year by year, but it's much more likely they'll go the Lowry route and try to go long-term.

What kind of contract might Cain demand? After only a year-plus of major league service, Noah Lowry got a 4-year, $9.25 million contract with a $6.25 million club option for the fifth year. You might say that's not a good place to start a comparison because Cain is much better than Lowry, but (how soon we forget!) Lowry's first full year, 2005, was slightly better (36.5 VORP, 6.7 WARP) than Cain's first full year in 2006 (34.9 VORP, 6.4 WARP).

Ah, but the age difference. Lowry was 24, Cain 21. And what a difference a year or two makes in terms of salary structure. Are there other young pitchers we can use as comparison points?

How about Dontrelle Willis? Like Cain, he pitched his first full season at 21 and like Cain gave his team about 6 wins more than replacement level. (Actually, D-Train did that in only 27 starts. Wow.) That was three years ago. The Marlins never signed him to a long-term contract, and Dontrelle's salary has gone like this: $350,000 in '04, $380,000 in '05, $4.35 M in '06 -- a record for a first-time arb-eligible pitcher -- and $6.45 M for '07.

He could win $15 M next year, his final before free agency. Outlandish? Ha. For his final arb year, Carlos Zambrano is asking for a raise from $6.6 M to $15.5 M. The Cubs are offering $11 M. Whatever Zambrano gets, Dontrelle will surpass.

The cheapskate Marlins kept D-Train at the minimum as long as they could. It's not recommended as a way to build goodwill with a star player, but it's certainly within their rights. With the Giants track record, it's unlikely they'll go the D-Train route with Cain.

So let's assume the Giants try to use Lowry as a baseline for Cain, and Cain's agents argue that Cain's youth and star potential merit at least a small bump. OK, say the Giants, but he's no Dontrelle, who's been at worst above-league-average and at best near-Cy-Young in his four years. For a contract that gets them to Cain's free agency, the Giants want to pay somewhere between Noah and D-Train, adjusting for inflation (conventional wisdom holds that baseball sees an average 10% salary inflation per year; I'll go with that for the time being).

Here are the two players' pay scales so far, based on experience. (All data from Cot's Contracts). Figures including Lowry's signing bonus but not potential performance bonuses:

Rookie
DT: $240 K (est.)/ NL: $322 K
Year 2
DT: $350 K / NL: $1.385 M
Year 3
DT: $380 K / NL: $1.115 M
Year 4
DT: $4.35 M / NL: $2.25 M
Year 5
DT: $6.45 M / NL: $4.5 M
Year 6
DT: $15 M (est.) / NL: $6.25 M (club option)

Excluding rookie year minimums, Dontrelle should earn around $26 M by the end of his sixth year; Lowry about $17 M. Let's assume Noah earns some of his bonus money and kick that up to $20 M. For Cain, split the difference, then add 10% annual inflation for three years, and you get nearly $26 M.

Matt Cain, $26 million for the next five years? Sounds good to me.

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